Archive for March 2017

March 31st   Leave a comment

I have been away from Crail for the last week which makes it hard to comment on its wildlife. Spring has been advancing inexorably while I have been away and I was greeted by chiff-chaff song this morning in St Andrews and really quite balmy temperatures. The wind is streaming up from the south at the moment so we may even expect an early barn swallow and certainly a sand martin next week to join the ospreys of this week (one over Kirkcaldy yesterday).


Even while away in England I was frequently reminded of Crail and the area because I was at the British Ornithologists Union (perhaps better labelled as Global Bird Researchers) annual conference. This was themed this year on how tracking birds leads to understanding ecological and conservation problems: a lot of the talks concerned seabirds and so to the Crail link, some of these involved tracking gannets from the Bass Rock and shags from the May Island. It is always quite nice to sit in one of these conferences and be shown slides of home: the talks are interesting but always that bit more interesting when describing the things that you see everyday on your doorstep.

There is a lot of interest at the moment in measuring where seabirds go and how they get there because we intend to put thousands of wind turbines out in the North Sea. There is a huge offshore windfarm planned at the entrance to the Firth of Forth. Crail is right in the middle, albeit the turbines will be at least 25 km out at sea. A long way from us – we will barely be able to see the tops of them, but as the seabird flies, this is right on our doorstep. We know this very well now because if you put GPS tags on a gannet breeding on the Bass Rock you can track them flying out hundreds of kilometres there and back into the North Sea, crossing the footprint of the proposed wind farm daily if they are feeding chicks. Clearly there is a lot of potential for the 170,000 gannets to hit the turbines if they are not paying attention. And with the tags you can also see how high the birds are flying so in conjunction with their tracks, you can see how often they would intercept with (hit) a turbine, if of course, they take no evasive action. When you do the maths this works out at about 560 potential collisions a year, which is a very large number. But gannets have great binocular vision and turbines are not inconspicuous, particularly in our light Scottish summer nights, so they are unlikely to plough on into a turbine at random. They will fly above or most likely below them. But of course gannets are out there looking for fish, so they may well be distracted and looking down at the crucial moment. And it gets more complicated because the wind farms may also be avoided by fisherman – who don’t want to hit turbines either – so the wind farm may well make, in effect, a protected marine reserve where fish numbers may be higher. So attracting more gannets into the area and increasing collision risk particularly as they form up into their spectacular diving frenzies to catch the fish.

Gannets passing Crail as they leave the Forth to feed out in the North Sea

What will happen with these turbines is hard to call – I think there will be collisions but the gannets will probably adjust their behaviour. There are always hazards to avoid, particularly for a species which specialises in diving into dense aggregations of fish, cetaceans and other individuals, where split second agility makes the difference between hitting another gannet or getting the fish. So gannets should be able to respond very quickly to avoid a collision threat: I hope so because regardless of the collision risk, these wind turbines will be put into place. But even if the collision risk is high there may be many ways to deter birds from collisions and we know also that for land based turbines, many bird species such as geese, soon adjust to the risk and life goes on normally in places like Denmark with the geese feeding reasonably happily in the farmland below the turbines. Perhaps the worse thing about the turbines being out there is they might be out of sight and out of mind. You can always count what hits a land based turbine; it is a bit harder out in the sea, especially during the winter storms. Again tracking birds should give us some of the answers: and of course I haven’t mentioned the 110,000 puffins also shuttling back and forth from the May Island.

A gannet feeding frenzy

Posted March 31, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 23rd   Leave a comment

I have been working in the garden all week and after the chiff-chaff of last week I have been hoping for more birds passing through or over. Today’s pipe dream was an osprey. I have only ever seen one Crail osprey; a late summer bird passing over Kingsbarns beach and then over Crail, heading to West Africa. But they must pass over Crail every year. Every time the gulls started making a fuss I looked up in hope but they were just particularly noisy today. Even the local buzzards weren’t flying over and upsetting them, I think it was just boisterousness and squabbles over rooftop territories. One bird I did notice, however, was a male greenfinch or two displaying over the bottom of my garden. Greenfinches have a canary like twittering and a very distinctive stiff winged, slow wingbeat display flight in the spring. They look like big yellow-green butterflies. Their stilted flight makes them look a little bit like swallows too so they often catch my eye at this time of year. Greenfinches have become less common in recent years because of a disease epidemic caused by a protozoan parasite but they still remain a common bird. Every garden in Crail will have a greenfinch singing over it or nearby and they certainly brighten up an early spring, ospreyless, day.

A fine spring male greenfinch

The sea remained quiet today. Just gulls, gannets, cormorants and shags. The cormorants are mostly developing breeding plumage now with white thigh patches and white around the base of their bills. Although we think of cormorants as coastal, they are a bird of rivers and lakes in most other parts of Europe, nesting in big tree colonies like herons. Cormorants here nest at the base of the cliffs amongst the rocks on the May Island. Every evening I watch them fly back to the island to roost, even during the winter: the safety of the May worth the five mile flight from Crail.

Cormorant – just with the start of its breeding plumage

Balcomie Beach was also very quiet this week. All of the waders seem to have moved on apart from the oystercatchers and a few redshanks. The waders that appear from now onwards will be staging on their way north to breed. It really is quite quiet at Fife Ness at the moment and I find myself eager for the spring to get going to improve the chance of encountering something special out there. Springs are very unpredictable here in terms of good numbers of interesting migrant birds – something good always turns up but some years there are lots of good things. We are due a spring of red-backed shrikes with a hoopoe and a bluethroat for good measure.

Posted March 23, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 22nd   Leave a comment

There was a cold easterly wind today – tomorrow there might well be a black redstart at Fife Ness. The sea was disappointing today: only gannets passing a little closer in and almost nothing else.

One of the gannets passing close in today

I took a walk around Kilrenny mid-morning. Despite the cold everything is cranking up for breeding. The tree sparrows were everywhere very busy chirping in pairs and hanging around the nest boxes. There was a fair bit of robin, great tit, blackbird and chaffinch song, with skylarks and a corn bunting singing in the adjacent field. I found my first Crail area lesser black-backed gull of the year amongst a flock of herring gulls in a winter wheat field. Like chiff-chaffs, these summer migrants have become more and more resident over the last 40 years. My bird today could have been newly arrived from Morocco for the summer or one of the handful of birds that winter around Cellardyke. I will go for newly arrived migrant just because it appeals more to me, and in any case it is no. 102 for the Crail year list.

A tree sparrow checking out its nest box

Posted March 22, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 16th   Leave a comment

I took the day off today to work on the path across the pond in my back garden. I was hoping that all day just outside in Crail would pay off with something of interest flying over. Things are starting to move now and there was a steady passage of meadow pipits all day. After an hour or two I thought I heard a chiff-chaff calling but it was only one call – luckily a few minutes later I heard it again. Really calling this time and then the bird itself appeared foraging very hard in the small bushes and trees in my neighbour’s garden. My first summer migrant of the year and a very early record. Last year my first chiff-chaff was April 4th, and in years before, April 8th, 4th, 15th, 7th and 10th. Chiff-chaffs are one of the first migrants to arrive for the summer, and there have been many records already in England this year, but they don’t, as my records show, usually pass through Crail until the first week in April. There is a fly in the ointment though. Chiff-chaffs also winter in the UK small numbers (most only migrate as far as Spain or North Africa, although some do cross the Sahara) and over the last 30 years the numbers doing this, particularly in England, has increased hugely. This far north it is much more unusual and I haven’t seen a wintering chiff-chaff in Crail since 2006, on February 6th, and before that a Siberian chiff-chaff on a frosty day just after Christmas by the burn at Cambo. So my money is on a genuine migrant today rather than a wintering bird. It was feeding very hard in that manner that migrants have after a long night’s flight when they really want to refuel and get on. It wasn’t singing which might indicate a migrant, but I find chiff-chaffs hardly ever sing as they pass through Crail in the spring. True you do hear them but they are the ones that are easy to notice. There are many more that just keep their heads down and just keep feeding, eager to be on their way. I hope this early bird is a sign of an early spring – I may have seen a wheatear on my way to Anstruther this morning as well. It flew over the car so I couldn’t clinch its white rump, and it was silhouetted. It just looked like a wheatear – something in the way it flew – and I bet it was. I will be on the lookout this weekend: the coastal path and fields between Crail and Anstruther is always good place for early wheatears.

A March chiff-chaff. Number 101 for the year lists and hopefully a sign of an early spring

My other rewards for a day spent DIYing in the garden – a peregrine flying over in its powerful but lazy way, heading far out to sea perhaps to the May island and a couple of hunting sparrowhawks. Even with my head down working I knew they were coming past because of the blue tits. The top sentry bird. Whenever you hear a blue tit alarm calling (it’s the same as their song) look for the raptor. They have eyes in the back of their head and seem never to make false alarms.

The weather has been very variable this week with micro gales blowing up and then interspersed with perfect early spring days. The sea has correspondingly been choppy and then perfectly calm. Mark Twain’s saying “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes…” seems particularly apt. I do love the way the ever-changing state of the sea makes the commonplace suddenly noteworthy. Gannets diving between two meter high breakers, or guillemots dotted on a flat calm sea in mirrored pairs. It was the eiders’ turn yesterday. John’s brilliant photo of one braving the spray is like a Japanese painting.

Eider in the storm

I passed Kinghorn on the train mid-week and kept my eyes peeled for the humpback whale. It has been breaching spectacularly – jumping right out of the water – just like they do on the wildlife documentaries. I have only seen humpbacks coming up to breathe and spouting. Impressive enough, especially when close. But to see one breach – and from Crail. It probably wouldn’t get better than that for wild Crail, until I see a pod of killer whales pass, or a live leatherback turtle, or a black-browed albatross (all have been seen from Crail, although not by me). I just need a couple of hundred years more observing. I am grateful to all those activists and conservationists in the 70s and 80s that made it possible that we have a humpback whale back in the Forth again.

Posted March 16, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 9th   Leave a comment

Jackdaw – fun-loving, smart and social

Another clever crow is the jackdaw. They are right up there among my favourite birds, I think because of their sheer exuberance and the many signs that they actually have free time and have fun during it. Students of animal behaviour are not supposed to anthropomorphise. Nevertheless, as an appreciator of natural history, and in my free time just as a plain bird watcher, I think imagining that animals are a bit like us can help in understanding why animals are doing things. Jackdaws, for example, spend a lot of time soaring around above Crail in a big group apparently just having fun. And why not? They are clever and they are intensely social, just like us (plus they can fly which must be so much better than being able to dance): a party is really not that unlikely. If you listen to anthropologists talking about human parties, there are always good reasons why people might be there – forming alliances, finding mates, meeting new people etc. – yet whatever the ultimate reason, the motivating reason is because parties are fun. The jackdaws above Crail like to party and do it because it is fun, I am sure.

It’s not just Crail, of course, wherever jackdaws are, they party – most spectacularly on a sea cliff or a Greek mountain monastery, where the updraughts and the backdrop make their aerial acrobatics even more spectacular. And they constantly talk to each other. Their constant chacking echoes around the buildings and cliffs, varying in tone and pitch and intensity in a way that suggests to me that they are saying just a little bit more to each other than “whee – look at me fly”. The pair that warm themselves on top of my Aga chimney, when they are not showing off, also chat constantly away to each other, their contented chacks echoing down into the kitchen below to add a comforting ambience. Talk must be important to jackdaws too.

It can all turn nasty though, and our own experience in this helps me understand what might be happening when I observe one jackdaw being picked on, either being viciously chased by the others or excluded from their tumbling games in the evening. I suspect the victim may have stolen something, or got caught cheating, or just might not be the most popular jackdaw in town that day. Jackdaws are impossible for me to tell apart (and catching them to put colour-rings on is nearly impossible, they are just too smart) but they know each other and have long running associations, alliances and family groups that must turn sour every so often. I think the only reason that it’s meerkats rather than jackdaws that are so popular as super social, smart animals like us is because actually, meerkats are not as smart (or as mobile) as jackdaws, and so can be manipulated into being TV stars. If we could truly get into the middle of jackdaw society and know them as individuals, it would be just as interesting and complex.


Posted March 9, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 5th   Leave a comment

Every so often today the herring gulls started making a fuss and whenever I looked up there was a buzzard soaring over Crail. The gulls really don’t like buzzards. I am sure they take quite a few chicks later on the summer. At the moment the buzzards are just feeling springy and soaring over their territories (2-3 pairs include Crail within their territories) to advertise themselves and their ownership of the area. They also do a display flight at this time of year with exaggerated slow wing beats up and then rapid dives down in a saw-tooth progression across the sky. It’s a common bird of prey display – simple and obvious. A sparrowhawk was doing the same over Denburn this week as well.

A buzzard displaying

A buzzard displaying

There have been quite a lot of geese flying over Crail well after dark this week. Heading out towards the Lothians (or back again). They have all been pink-footed geese, easily identifiable because their honks are broken by squeaky bits that sound like their voices are breaking – “honk- onk – wink – wink”.

There is a carrion crow (or perhaps more than one) out at Fife Ness that regularly fishes in the rock pools. It strides around like a black egret, freezing and stabbing at tiny fish (or maybe shrimp) like a pro. Crows are among the smartest of birds. They are flexible generalists that make their living out of exploiting new situations and the misfortunes of others. Very like us in fact, which goes some way to explaining why, perhaps, they are mistrusted and often hated. Animals that might just be appraising you, as you judge them.

The fishing crow of Fife Ness

The fishing crow of Fife Ness

Posted March 5, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 2nd   Leave a comment

A male stonechat foraging on the beach this morning

A male stonechat foraging on the beach on Wednesday

With the cold weather back again now is the perfect time to seek out a stonechat. Think of a robin but with a black face and a white collar. Its behaviour is the same though. Perching on small stems and twigs, dropping to the ground and then pouncing on an insect. Or more likely a sandhopper in this cold weather. That’s why it is a good time to look for stonechats. They always like the edge of the shore but in cold weather they actually come out to feed on the beach where there is always something small wriggling or jumping about to provide a meal unlike the frozen ground behind the beach. So they are very obvious and even tamer than usual. If you sit down when you spot a stonechat it will soon ignore you (robins do the same) and start feeding right beside you. One of the most endearing things about stonechats is that they always come in you will get a good view of both male and female. Females are dull versions of the male, so unlike robins in this respect, but easy enough to identify particularly when the male is close by. Stonechats are a strange species in that they occur all the way from Denmark through Africa and east to Japan: I have seen them in highland areas in Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. A more colourful version but still the same stonechat perched jauntily on a stem or twig and ready for any insect that passes by below. Because of their range from tropical areas to Arctic Russia (they are summer migrants to northerly areas and cold winters here can reduce populations substantially) they are often used as a model species to test theories about how the environment shapes the life history of animals. Tropical bird species, for example, usually lay only a couple of eggs – it is thought because nest predation rates are so high, but otherwise living is easy – so better to invest little and often, whereas temperate birds aren’t likely to survive a winter so better to lay as many eggs as possible. Sure enough, in stonechats there is a trend for 4 egg clutches in Kenya all the way to 7 egg clutches in Scotland. I don’t know what it is about birds that occur everywhere I go, perhaps because they link me back to home – stonechats are one of those species that I am as pleased to see at Balcomie as in Senegal.

And again

And again

Posted March 2, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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